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Despite what you’ve heard, the Emmy Awards are bad. They’re an annual celebration of TV’s so-called achievements, and an excuse to gather people from the small screen and hand out awards to … pretty much the same shows every year.
This year’s ceremony will be the 69th annual Emmys, which is to say that this thing’s been going on for a long time. As with anything that lasts for multiple decades, the show has had its ups and its downs, its good years and its bad years. The Emmys got off to a tough start: The show’s host in 1949, Walter O’Keefe, was only the show’s host because Rudy Vallée had to leave town at the last minute. Have things gotten better since then? Only slightly!
In advance of the 2017 awards, I wanted to determine the Emmys’ darkest years—the ceremonies that felt like torture, the memories of which we will subdue as we decide to spend four hours of our Sunday night watching CBS. (If you have a happier soul and would rather read about the Emmy’s best years, click here.)
To make this list, I considered the four crucial elements of any Emmy Awards:
- The Awards: Obviously, a good awards show should give out good awards—by which I mean, they should acknowledge the most worthy nominees. In the case of the Emmys, I gave bonus points to the ceremonies that embraced the changing tides of television, and also the ones that adjusted the Emmys format in ways that helped the show evolve aptly and intelligently. If a show did not do these things, it did not receive points
- The Host: The host of an awards show is crucial. Just ask everyone who watched Seth MacFarlane do the Oscars in 2013.
- The Moments: The moments are arguably the most important part of any awards ceremony—they’re the things that make a show memorable and iconic.
- Best Available Video: For this one, I scoured YouTube for clips from each respective ceremony and selected the best candidates. In case you’re wondering, a good clip from Emmys past doesn’t necessarily have to be good, inspiring, or funny; whether it’s baffling, embarrassing, or laughable, all that matters is that it’s a perfect snapshot of a moment in TV history.
After pinpointing those four elements of each Emmy Awards, I ranked them (1-68) against their counterparts. Then I averaged each ceremony’s four rankings to get a total score. The lower the score, the better the awards show—and the higher the score, the worse the show.
Got it? Cool. So without further ado, here are the 10 worst Emmy Awards in history.
10. The 1961 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 47): The winning show at this ceremony was—no lie—a Hallmark presentation of Macbeth. I just fell asleep writing that sentence. Now that I’m awake again, let me tell what the runner-up was: the 1960s Convention Cov—[passes out].
The Hosts (Ranked no. 55): Nothing against Dick Powell, a fair lad who I hear was just dandy in 1938’s Cowboy from Brooklyn, but it sounds like he wasn’t a great host. The Los Angeles Times’ headline for their Emmys review was “TV Awards Show Lacking in Excitement.” That’s on you, Dick Powell.
The Moments (Ranked no. 47): Things were apparently pretty dour at the ceremony because Gary Cooper had just died three days prior. According to the Times, the most thrilling moment of the show was when Barbara Stanwyck got her gown stuck on a chair:
“As in all spectacular events there was one moment of comedy—or near embarrassment—when Miss Stanwyck, in her haste to rush to the stage, ripped part of her gown. Joey Bishop … used the incident to advantage by quipping, ‘The guy who helped Barbara Stanwyck with her coat was on camera longer than I was.’”
Sounds like a rip-roaring time!
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 56):
You can see Barbara Stanwyck get her coat caught on the chair, right? It’s crazy, right? No?
9. The 1984 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 49): This was a year of repeats. Cheers won Outstanding Comedy Series for the second straight year, while Hill Street Blues won Drama for the fourth straight year. Cheers’ Shelley Long also got snubbed in favor of Jane Curtin for Kate & Allie.
The Host (Ranked no. 42): It’s a big risk tapping an actor to host an awards show rather than a comedian or a trained emcee (Seth MacFarlane, the 2013 Oscars, remember?), and getting Tom Selleck to host the ’84 Emmys did not pan out. In the end he wasn’t a plus or a minus, merely a dude with a great mustache who moved things along. After the ceremony he told the Los Angeles Times, “It was painful for me to stand up in front of all those people.” In case you’re wondering how Tom Selleck’s poor hosting performance affected Tom Selleck.
The Moments (Ranked no. 61): The 1984 Emmy Awards were a big night for a lot of talented actresses—from Curtin to Rhea Perlman to Jane Fonda—but overall, there were no moments that stood out, which is why it ranks so low.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 54): Ted Danson getting really excited that Something About Amelia won:
Like I said, not a lot happened at this ceremony.
8. The 1976 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 28): The Mary Tyler Moore Show won Outstanding Comedy Series, and the ceremony handed awards to a ton of legends: Peter Falk, Anthony Hopkins, Hal Holbrook, Ted Knight, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore. Forty years later, those selections hold up.
The Hosts (Ranked no. 62): No shade to Mary Tyler Moore, here—I’m going to fully blame her cohost John Denver. It feels like peak Hollywood that Emmys producers were like, “Oh hey, Mary, we’re going to give you and your show five awards, but we kinda feel like you need a man’s help hosting?”
The Moments (Ranked no. 65): O.J. Simpson presented a segment on sports? Other than that, this was a business-only ceremony.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 52):
This video is cool because Tim Conway jokingly runs on stage when he’s announced as a nominee, which causes Chevy Chase to jump on stage, which causes Harvey Korman to jump on stage. It’s a fun bit, an ancestor of Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart mucking it up at the 2012 Emmys. Then again, it’s not that fun.
7. The 2008 Emmys
The Awards (Ranked no. 33): Not too bad actually: 30 Rock won again, Mad Men won Outstanding Drama Series in its rookie year, and Bryan Cranston nabbed his first Best Actor Emmy for playing Walter White in Breaking Bad. This year’s awards were also notable for two other reasons: It was the last year categories only had five nominees (because of course we need to nominate six actors instead of five), and it was the year that Grey’s Anatomy’s Katherine Heigl withdrew her name from contention because she “did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination.” Incredible.
The Hosts (Ranked no. 66): In an effort to embrace reality TV, the Emmys went totally bonkers and hired five hosts for the 2008 show: Tom Bergeron, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Jeff Probst, and Ryan Seacrest. Guess what—it didn’t go very well! None of the hosts were compelling, but how could they be? None of them were given enough time to make an impact.
The opening sketch also involved all of the other hosts—who are men, mind you—ripping off Heidi Klum’s clothes? I know it’s been nine years, but 2008 was a looong time ago.
The Moments (Ranked no. 67): Aside from the hosts, the ceremony was a debacle. Presenter Vanessa Williams had a microphone go out on her; Josh Groban performed a medley of TV theme songs, a bit that Jason Alexander had already done in 1994. Oh also, it was the lowest-rated Emmy Awards to date.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 45): The Josh Groban performance really needs to be seen to be believed:
6. The 1998 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 61): Frasier won in ’98 for the FIFTH YEAR IN A ROW. I mean, come on, guys—The Larry Sanders Show and Seinfeld were still on the air! Also, ER, a decade-defining show, came into the night with the most nominations, and went home with zero wins.
The Host (Ranked no. 68): There was no host in 1998. They just didn’t have one. I guess you have to commend them for experimenting, and you could argue that a host’s job is superfluous. But then again, that argument would crumble once someone brought up the 1998 Emmys.
The Moments (Ranked no. 58): As this was the 50th annual Emmy Awards, the show leaned into nostalgia. And not in a fun way—the ceremony was an overlong slog down memory lane that I assume featured multiple references to “the golden age of television.” This is not what awards shows are for—we have PBS for that.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 29): This pre-presentation bit featuring former costars Garry Shandling and David Duchovny is quite funny, but that it’s the “Best” video from the ceremony tells you all you need to know.
5. The 1956 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 42): Pretty average, with some good selections, such as Lucille Ball winning Best Actress and Lassie winning Best Children’s Show.
The Hosts (Ranked no. 57): Art Linkletter and John Charles Daly were so impactful as hosts of the Eighth Primetime Emmy Awards that the Los Angeles Times writeup barely mentions them. (It’s fair to say that hosting the Emmys would only become a high-pressure gig years later. The expectations of Linkletter and Daly were likely much less than that of Fallon or Kimmel in this century, and they probably shouldn’t be judged against each other. But when you’re making lists, you’ve gotta make some cutthroat decisions.)
The Moments (Ranked no. 64): Psh, not that much happened … but the ceremony did inspire a man to seriously suggest that the Emmy Awards be abolished.
Best Available Video (Not Ranked): Sadly, YouTube does not currently host any footage from the 1956 Emmy Awards, which either means that they were so bad the Academy has been scrubbing their existence from the internet ever since, or that it was just a long time ago.
4. The 2003 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 66): With gritty cable shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Shield taking over the Emmys in the early 2000s, there was bound to be a backlash from voters who were resistant to change. The 2003 awards were exactly that: Everybody Loves Raymond was the night’s big winner, taking home Outstanding Comedy Series for the first time—it had already been on for seven seasons, which feels like enough time to deem whether a show is award-worthy or not—and beating out shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, and Will & Grace. That sucks.
The Hosts (Ranked no. 58): Because it went so well when they tried it in 1998, the Emmys once again decided not to hire a host for the '03 ceremony. Instead they enlisted 11 comedians—Ellen DeGeneres, Brad Garrett, George Lopez, Conan O’Brien, Bernie Mac, Dennis Miller, Garry Shandling, Martin Short, Jon Stewart, Darrell Hammond, and Wanda Sykes—to act as presenters and segment hosts. If that sounds like too many glorified hosts, that’s because it was. “With so many funny folks assembled in one time slot on Sunday, it seemed the sheer volume of one-liners, impersonations and rapid-fire witticisms would have 'em rolling in the aisles, or at least not rushing toward the exits,” the Los Angeles Times’ Reed Johnson wrote. “But too many routines either started flat or quickly fizzled. Several were deservedly met by the audience with crooked smiles and half-hearted chuckles.” Note to the Emmys: One host is right amount of hosts to hire.
The Moments (Ranked no. 57): Conan did a dance, then Martin Short did a dance. Then there were some extremely topical bits: SNL’s Darrell Hammond impersonating California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Shandling and Garrett making out on stage in a spoof of Britney Spears and Madonna’s kiss at the MTV VMAs, which happened a month earlier. (Because nothing says cool like a couple of middle-aged men riffing on “what those young kids are watching.”)
The one funny thing that happened—and no one thought it was funny at time—was Wanda Sykes overtly trolling Bill Cosby. Strolling the aisles of the theater, she went up to Cosby and said, “Was Nipsey Russell busy tonight?” He apparently remained silent and stewed behind a pair of sunglasses. That’s awesome, and I wish there was video online of it. Speaking of ...
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 40): Here’s Jon Stewart more or less doing The Daily Show during the Emmys:
It’s fun to watch, if by fun I mean “actually kind of terrifying, because cable news has been a journalistic concern for more than decade and all we’ve done is laugh about it and let it get worse.” Moving on!
3. The 1963 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 59): Here’s a Chicago Tribune headline about that year’s nominees, which included The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Williams Show: “Emmy Awards Are Hodge Podge Again.” Does it make you feel warm and fuzzy inside that we complain about the same things people complained about half a century ago? Or does it make you feel incredibly depressed, as if time is a dreadful circle and we’re doomed to repeat history and never learn from it?
The Hosts (Ranked no. 41): Annette Funicello and Don Knotts are legends, so this was a pretty good get for the Emmys—especially just 15 years into their run.
The Moments (Ranked no. 55): The biggest moment of the ceremony was probably the opening, which was a dispatch from England, broadcast via satellite. That sounds extremely lame, but remember, this was 1963. Dick Van Dyke probably flipped out.
Also, the after party looks like it was turned up.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 66): There are no available videos of the 1963 Emmys, so here’s a video of Mary Tyler Moore talking about the 1963 Emmys:
2. The 1950 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 65): Wanna hear the most L.A. thing ever? For the first few years, the Emmys only gave out awards for Los Angeles–based TV shows and stations. They also gave out an award for Best Commercial to Lucky Strike, which I bet Don Draper was psyched about.
The Host (Ranked no. 54): Bill Welsh was less of a host and more of an announcer. It was a different, less festive time.
The Moments (Ranked no. 48): To repeat: it was a different, less festive time. Mayor Fletcher Bowron spoke! Comedian Ed Wynn took this photo!
It’s somewhat incredible that the Emmys didn’t peter out in their nascent years.
Best Available Video (Not Ranked): No videos of the ceremony are available, which is too bad—I really wanted to see Bill Welsh fucking flex as an announcer.
1. The 1951 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 67 out 68): Again, they only gave out trophies to L.A. people and stations. Why does it rank lower than 1950? Because Don Draper didn’t win an award, and because they made a new category called “Best Sports Program” and the nominees were Los Angeles Rams Football, College Basketball Games, College Football Games, Hollywood Baseball, and Los Angeles Baseball. (Los Angeles Rams Football won, by the way.)
The Host (Ranked no. 65): To host the ceremony, the Emmys pulled in Governor Earl Warren, who went and compared TV to the Bible: "Just like one book, the Bible, affected more lives than all the gunpowder ever invented, so will it be with television." Chill out, Earl.
The Moments (Ranked no. 66): I can’t decide if this is funny or creepy, so I’ll leave it up to you: When Groucho Marx won for Most Outstanding Personality, he left the statuette on stage and grabbed presenter and former Miss America Rosemary LaPlanche instead. Groucho reportedly later explained that he mistook LaPlanche for the Emmy.
Best Available Video (Not Ranked): Sorry, no videos. I will, however, leave you with this interview with Betty White, who remembers nothing about the 1951 ceremony. (She remembers plenty about 1952, however.)
At least the Emmys got the worst shows out of their system early?